Safe Drinking Water Requires Several Steps

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Credit: US EPA
Credit: US EPA

One of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s objectives is to make sure that the lakes are a source of safe, high-quality drinking water. The safer that source water is, the less money and effort needed by local utilities for treatment. To inform people who consume Great Lakes water, Canada and the US have rules on the books requiring water utilities to report on the quality of the drinking water they provide.

Municipal water systems in Canada and the US are required to make sure water is safe after its been treated, but protecting water at the source is just as important. Some potential contaminants can’t be easily removed at treatment plants, and water treatment is generally an expensive procedure. As a result of active efforts to protect water sources and treat incoming water, however, public utilities in both countries provide safe drinking water except in cases of rare, well-publicized disasters, such as recent lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, or Walkerton, Ontario’s E. coli outbreak in 2000. Part of the International Joint Commission’s task under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is to assess whether those sources of water are being protected. The Commission has found “that drinking water in the basin was very likely to be safe given present treatment measures for presently identified biological, chemical and physical contaminants.”

Under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act guidelines, all community water systems across the United States must prepare an annual “consumer confidence report.” If the utility serves more than 10,000 people, the report must be mailed out. Otherwise it can be mailed, posted publicly or made available in a local newspaper. For example, see 2015 reports here on the Eastpointe, Michigan, water system and here on the Rochester, New York, water system.

These reports explain where a system’s drinking water comes from, testing done for contaminants like nitrates, barium, chlorine, copper and lead, and testing results. Not all contaminants are necessarily harmful – some, like sulfates or iron, only impact the taste or appearance of water. But some, like lead, can have major impacts on human health. The EPA sets minimum safe standards for drinking water, though states can adopt stricter standards.

“The information contained in (these) reports can raise consumers’ awareness of where their water comes from, help them understand the process by which safe drinking water is delivered to their homes, and educate them about the importance of preventative measures, such as source water protection, that ensure a safe drinking water supply,” the EPA wrote in the summary of its final approved rule in 1998.

Under the Ontario Safe Drinking Water Act, the Ontario Ministry of Environment requires annual reports – such as these from Toronto – from every drinking water plant that serves more than 100 people. These reports are not necessarily sent to every resident, but are typically found on the city website of the municipality providing the water. Ontario also requires that owners of community drinking water systems test water in the plumbing inside a home or building and in distribution pipes throughout an area to make sure there is no contamination between the water plant and the water coming out of your faucet.

The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is one of several that serve the Toronto area. Credit: r h via Flickr
The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is one of several that serve the Toronto area. Credit: r h via Flickr

Every year, Ontario also releases a Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water, which includes a section on provincial efforts to protect drinking water. Topics include climate change, First Nations-specific issues, source water protection and other concerns specific to the Great Lakes. The province also regularly releases the Chief Drinking Water Inspector Annual Report, which focuses on source water protection, the quality of drinking water across the province, and water test results at the point of use (including for substances like lead).

Water and its protection and safety is an issue that unites people in both countries, particularly around a watershed as massive as the Great Lakes. The safeguards in place to protect source waters – and public reporting of testing results – provide important assurances that we can continue to enjoy a cool drink of water.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

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